Alexander Nagel


On his book The Controversy of Renaissance Art

Cover Interview of July 12, 2011

A close-up

There is a short section devoted to the painting reproduced on the book’s cover, which is Rosso Fiorentino’s Dead Christ (1527), a very strange painting and nothing less than a reinvention of the purpose of painting.  It never made it to its destination, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro, staying in Rome instead and eventually entering a collection.

The picture gives us the unusual subject of Christ within the tomb, after the Entombment but before the Resurrection.  We see inside the tomb and witness a vigil held by angels over the body of Christ.  Everything about this picture is strange and ambiguous.  Christ’s eyes are closed but he doesn’t seem quite dead, or dead any longer.  That right arm touches the leg and knee, but can we say that it is resting on them?

Christ is presented emphatically nude, and yet no male genitalia are visible. He sees distinctly feminized.  The candles held to either side by the angels are not aflame; instead, they give off thick plumes of smoke even as the embers glow.  The light in the painting is not produced by the candles but instead enters from the left foreground, reflecting sharply against Christ’s shins. The blowing smoke lifting from the candles indicates that a gust of wind has entered with the shaft of light.  The angels’ vigil is over, the stone has begun to roll away, and we see Christ coming alive with the dawn.  Christ’s form seems to light up together with the candles; his body twists in the same direction as their coiled shafts and his head reaches to exactly their height. As the candles catch fire, his head tilts back, throwing up his flame-like red hair.

In Rosso’s interpretation, the beautiful body that is emerging from this process is androgynous, as if purified to a pre-gendered state—that is to say, the original state of humanity as understood by a long tradition of Platonic, Christian and Kabbalistic interpretations of the origins of humanity.  Christ, the new Adam, returns in this pristine form.  The conception of the transfigured body extends to the entire painting.  Passages of overt carnality, such as the angel’s hand delicately palpating Christ’s vulvalike side wound, inhabit a space that is compressed, ambiguous, and unplotted.

Spatial ambiguities abound: do those candles stand on the ledge of the sarcophagus or do they reach the ground? To which angel does that palpating hand belong? This subtle space behaves less like the external world than the mutable and polymorphous mental space of the imagination, or what was called in Rosso’s period the fantasia, which was understood as a chamber in the brain into which images from the outside world were projected and fluidly combined.

Now, at the far end of a history of perspective and even as perspective is relinquished, this painting projects the malleable, volatile, internal world of the imagination. It is unusual for a painting to insist so strongly on its status as the projection of an internal psychic space, and it is not surprising that the result should be imprinted with special personal identifications, visible residues of the fact that this projection originated, first of all, in the artist’s fantasia. They called him Rosso because his hair was red, like his Christ’s.